“Why do we call them wirelesses?”, Sarah asked one evening when she and her flatmate, Lin Chau were discussing whether to buy one or not. It was a cool and moist evening with a fog that wrapped everything in impenetrable cotton, and the fire in the fireplace smelled of kerosene.
“Long ago”, Lin explained, emptying her second glass of whiskey, “carts were connected to animals by wires. The animals pulled the carts through the streets like… well, things that pull other things. Then they invented the copper mesh cooling system, and suddenly you could attach a steam engine to the cart. You no longer needed animals, not even a single chicken, and therefore; no wires. Wireless carts. See?”
“You are so clever, Lin. You know everything”.
“I know, sugarshoes. I know”.
Suddenly, there was a knock on the door and Fanny, the landlord, entered the room smoking a cigarette and wiping lipstick from her cheek. Her hair and her clothes were in their usual state of chaos.
“That blokes ‘ere ‘gan”, she slurred.
Before anyone had time to ask what she was talking about, inspector Pranks came charging in with his raincoat flapping around him like a big flap and with his fog glasses pushed up on his forehead.
“Lin”, he shouted at Lin while looking at Sarah and nodding, acknowledging that he recognised her but had forgotten her name. “The Spaniards have invented a machine. You must go there at once and destroy it and steal the blueprints”.
“Where is this machine?” Lin asked, emptying her third glass of malt.
“On one of the Canary Islands. It's all in this note”. He handed her a piece of paper that was soaked wet all through. “There is a blimp to Marseille from Paddington in one hour. From there, you are on your own. Be careful”. He stood still for a second, looking at Sarah and wondering if her name might be Cassandra. Then he turned around and vanished.
“He’s so dashing”, Sarah said to herself very quietly so that Lin wouldn't hear her. If Lin saw how dashing inspector Pranks was, she might fall in love with him and move in together with him and start a family with him. Because inspector Pranks was obviously already in love with Lin. Like every man in London.
“You coming?” Lin said to Sarah while strapping her faithful bowie knife to her left ankle.
“I can't”, Sarah answered, tears beginning to fill her eyes. “I just bought that stupid hospital. You remember? It’s the inauguration ceremonies tomorrow and I have to be there”.
“It’s alright, babycake. I’ll buy you something nice. And when I come back, I’ll take you to Ma Frescos All Night Diner, and we’ll have a really fun night together. OK, ladybug?”
Sarah shone up like a lighthouse in a coalmine. “Yes. Yes, I’ll be here”, she said.
Lin left the flat at Candlestickmaker Street and headed over to Paddington Blimp Station on Praed Street. It was only a few blocks away, but the heavy fog and the slippery cobblestone roads slowed her down, and she only made it with a few minutes to spare. Maybe they should get one of those wirelesses after all, she thought. Yes, maybe they should, because what she hadn't noticed was the dark shadow in green socks and black fog glasses that followed her at a safe distance.
The blimp for Marseille left London at 9:48 pm; exactly on the clock. Lin got a single cabin in first class, close to the bar and way up front so that she could sit in her bed and look at France, if she wanted to. (She didn't want to. She had seen it before). She spent most of the night in the bar, emptying the blimp’s supply of Springbank and Macallan and listening to a tireless, french woman singing about her life as a prostitute in Amsterdam.
When it was time for breakfast, Lin went to the dining hall, sat down at an empty table and ordered a Sole Homardine and a glass of Caol Ila (instead of coffee). The weather looked nice and France looked… well, french. They had just passed over Valence and had only a couple of hours left before they reached their destination. The dining hall was slowly being filled with English people ordering kippers, and French people ordering baguettes. Some people were with their families and other people wore business suits or high fashion outfits. Sweat pants weren't allowed in first class, so everyone was happy. A young woman, very chic and pretty, sat down opposite Lin, picked up a mirror from her handbag and began improving her make-up. Another woman, and what was possibly her husband or her lover, soon took the remaining two seats at Lin's table.
“Je m’appelle Tistelle”, the young woman introduced herself, sweet as a cupcake with whipped cream and strawberry jam. She smiled coyly at Lin.
“I’m Lin”, Lin answered.
“I know. I recognise your beautiful visage. You are so small and sexy”. Young Tistelle obviously had some problems with the english language. “I ‘ave a bottle of Moet in ma chambre. I don't think customs will let me keep it. Will you ‘elp me finish it off before we land?” She smiled like an innocent fox trying to hide the bloody corpse of a lost chicken.
“Of course”, Lin smiled back. “I’m always willing to help a beautiful lady in distress”.
The waiter came with Lin’s plate and put it down in front of her. It was oak smoked Kippers and Bits.
“Excuse me. I ordered the Sole”, Lin protested.
“Oh, yes. That’s right. I’ll take it back”.
“I beg your pardon”, the man across the table said. “I can take that instead. I was going to order kippers anyway. Saves everybody a bit of hassle”.
“Why, of course, sir”, the waiter said and put the plate down in front of him.
As with all of English Airways’ blimps, the dining hall was where they really showed off. The design was made by the most exclusive, Italian designers and the building materials were selected from among the most expensive materials you could find. You could copy the dining hall and put it in Windsor Castle and nobody would raise an eyebrow. Some people even thought it looked good. The table cloth was made from finest alpaca and the cutlery and porcelain was from Finland, where all the finest cutlery and porcelain designers lived.
Suddenly the man at the table threw his head onto the Finnish porcelain plate full of kippers and bits. He was - rather unexpectedly - dead as a doughnut.
The poor man had been poisoned by Swamp Fever Extract, a tasteless, odourless, colourless and undetectable poison, expertly concealed between the kipper and the bits on his breakfast plate. The wife - or lover - was distraught, and they had to put a blanket around her to calm her down. This had never happened before, the head chef certified.
Lin spent the next three hours in Tistelle’s cabin, helping her with the Moet and other fun things. When the police finally knocked on their door, Lin stood up and left the bedroom, showing her credentials to l’inspecteur.
“Oh”, l’inspecteur said. “Signed by Madame le Queen ‘erself. Did you kill the man?”
“No”, Lin answered truthfully.
“Oki. You can go now”. She turned to Tistelle. “Mademoiselle, vous etiez assis á table avec le mort?” she said and sat down on the bedside with the notebook in her lap.
Lin waved a quick goodbye to Tistelle, sneaked out of the room and left the blimp. It was a sunny and warm day in Marseille and the saffrony smell of freshly cooked Bouillabaisse filled the air. Fishermen and sailors, mixed with tourists and tapenade traders, moved freely in the narrow streets while slow-moving, luxurious wirelesses honked like there was no tomorrow. Lin strolled down Rue Saint-Pierre towards the old harbour where the boat to Algiers was waiting. The closer she got, the less the air smelled of Bouillabaisse and the more it smelled of old booze and wet corrugated cardboard. She stopped for a moment in front of a seedy bar and considered walking in, grabbing a large whiskey and starting a fight with a couple of drunken sailors or a bunch of layabout hairdressers. But the horrible machine on the Canary Islands waited for no one and she had to postpone all personal pleasures for the moment. Maybe on the way back.
She boarded the RS Trocadero at 4 pm. It was an old sailing vessel, shiny like a buttered bechamel, with seven steam engines mounted on the outside of the hull and pipes running up the masts like ropes in a rig. The ship was classified as a four star passenger transporter, which meant it was good enough to cross the Mediterranean Sea, offer a fair amount or night time entertainment and, at the same time, keep its passengers comfortable and moderately safe. Due to tax regulations and Algeria’s status as a no-mans-land - or “neutral” - liquor served onboard was duty free, and whatever happened aboard the Trocadero stayed at the Trocadero.
Lin got a shared cabin under the bridge, close to the bar where people had already gathered to party. Her cabin mate was Hester von Glockenspiel, a somewhat famous demi-monde from Berlin who once had sung "Lied vom weißen Käse" on Berliner Stadt Opera. This middle-aged woman spent most of her time onboard dancing with a much younger Berber woman in an off-white thobe. The two of them didn't show any interest in speaking to Lin or anybody else.
The only one who slept during the night onboard was Lin, who had to keep a low profile from now on. Algeria was, as mentioned, neutral, but it was infested with Spanish diplomats and spies, and it's allegiance, should it be officially declared, was to Spain. Any trouble with local authorities could jeopardise the mission and was to be avoided.
Early next morning, when the sun had begun to climb and silence filled the air, Lin stood up from her berth and stretched her arms. She still had a couple of hours before the ship landed in Algiers so she decided to have a drink - if there was anything drinkable left - and something to eat for breakfast. She got dressed and left the cabin as quiet as she could, not to wake Miss von Glockenspiel and the Berber woman.
The bar had run out of both Springbank and Macallan (Lin’s guess was; they never had any) and she had to accept Glenfiddich as a substitute. The uninspired level of cooking didn't alleviate the experience: Fried potato, seagull’s eggs omelette, kelp salad and pickled ansjovis. A bit bland, but acceptable as food.
When she came back to her cabin, bored but nourished to a sustainable level, she found the Berber girl sitting on one berth, staring in front of her as if her mind and her body were on different planets. Lin’s travelling bag was where she had put it the night before, but it was open, and some of its contents were scattered on the floor. Lin could immediately see that her expensive, Danish shampoo had been stolen. (The shampoo was said to be sprinkled with glitter from unborn unicorns, collected by Mr Andersen himself, so, you see, it wasn't any old bargain bin broth).
“Who did this?” Lin asked the Berber girl in a stern voice. “Who’s been here?” But the girl didn't answer; she was too far gone, hungover like a hibernating horse and shell-shocked like a freaked-out shell collector. “Where’s your girlfriend?”
When she didn't get any answer, Lin searched the room. She couldn't find any signs of forced entry, and nothing but the exclusive shampoo was missing, but when she extended her search to the bathroom, she got all her answers. Outstretched on the shower cubicle floor, still wet and still clutching the precious shampoo bottle in her right hand, was the body of Hester von Glockenspiel. And she was dead as a dingo. And her hair smelled like unicorn glitter.
A quick examination of the stiff body, the bottle and the minuscule bathroom confirmed Lin’s suspicions: Ms von Glockenspiel had been murdered by shampoo. The fact that it had happened in Lin’s proximity posed a serious problem. While the French police recognised a written carte blanche from the Queen, Algerian police would not. On the contrary. They would confiscate the document and sell it - and Lin - to the nearest Spanish observer they could find, and probably be decorated for it.
Luckily, the Berber woman was still in a catatonic state. Her clothes lay on the floor beside Hester’s berth, and in the front pocket of her off-white thobe was the reservation ticket to a cabin at the other end of the ship. Lin quickly got undressed, put on the Berber outfit and left the room, taking only her money and her bowie knife with her. Dressed as a small Berber woman she managed to sneak through customs unnoticed, before the body was discovered.
Algiers, the white city, was bathing in sunlight. Sounds from a thousand peddlers and their beaten donkeys filled the streets and the smell of rose water and fermented dates overwhelmed even the most insensitive of noses. Arabic, Spanish and French voices mixed together like a thick harissa soup, warning Lin that she was close to enemy territory. She had planned to visit her old friend Adilah Achami, but with the local police in her trail and the word count reaching its limit, she decided to head straight for the sand ship at Sidi Amar.
Sand ships; the majestic and ancient carriers of the Saharan desert, rigged with all amenities necessary for a comfortable journey across the endless dunes of an unforgiving landscape. Even if it was a slow way to reach the neutral Western Sahara, it was the only way to keep a healthy distance to Spanish Morocco and its secret police force.
Lin got a cabin on the upper deck, close to the bridge and the bar. She spent most of her time onboard SS Jellyfish resting in a sun lounger on her balcony, drinking whiskey and improving on her tan. With her on the balcony was a french woman from Tunis, an envoy from the Ministry of Minerals who had been sent to Western Sahara to inspect a bauxite deposit. Lin had met her in the bar the first evening onboard, and invited her to her cabin. Her name was Michelle Bouillon.
“We better stay here the whole trip”, she purred and crept up in Lin’s bed. “Think of the sand pirates and the scorpions”.
Lin had no idea what she talked about, but agreed, just to be on the safe side.
On the third day, late in the afternoon when the sun was about to vanish in the west, the purser; a woman that they had not seen before, came knocking on their door. There had been a complaint about water leaking from the foremast tank, she said, and she wanted to check the bathroom. Once inside the room, she suddenly jumped at Lin and tried to stab her with a shining desert dagger. Luckily, something in her manner had put Lin in alert mode and she parried the attacker with a sauce pan. The relatively short fight ended with Lin sending the false purser flying over the balcony railing and landing, head first, in a sand dune. While the sand ship sailed away from her, Lin and Michelle could watch her from the balcony, digging herself out of the dune. She would have a tough time getting back to civilisation.
“Why did she try to kill you?” Michelle asked, looking at the diminishing silhouette at the horizon.
“I don't know”, Lin answered.”Maybe she just made a feeble stab at joining in, and now she’s fallen too much behind”.
They reached Laayoune Desert Central at 6:45, Friday evening, just in time to see the sun sink into the Atlantic Ocean and the date mongers packing up for the night. The scent of burning seaweed trickled through the air and singing sailors announced that the bars had opened. A couple of hairdressers, a little the worse for wear, tried to start a fight with Lin, but this was not the right time for pleasures. Maybe on the way back.
“Can I come with you to the island?” Michelle asked, holding on to Lin’s hand like a handrail to heaven.
“But what about the bauxite treaty?” Lin asked, smiling at the desperate envoy.
“No biggie. The Sahara is full of bauxite. Anyway, I only came for their famous goat stew (in harissa and date paste). And I can get us a boat”.
Now, Lin Chau wasn't the kind of woman who said no to a pretty envoy from Tunis who was offering her assistance in a quest. Instead, she accepted.
“I must warn you, though”, she stated. “It will be extremely dangerous. Most of my companions on adventures like this have the nasty habit of ending up tied to a chair, waiting for me to save them”.
“I’d like that”, Michelle cooed.
She led Lin to the Harbour Masters office at Harissa Lane, close to the docks. The harbour master herself wasn't particularly keen on lending one of her fine catamarans to the foreign couple, but when Michelle started to seduce her, pushing her playfully in the chest, poking her nose and chin and whisper about indecent things to do onboard a boat, Lin managed to pocket a pair of boat keys. The harbour master was still giggling when they left the office.
The sailing trip to La Gomera, the most desolate - and dangerous - of the Canary Islands took three days - much longer than Lin had anticipated. Luckily, there was a minibar onboard the catamaran and there was a lot to do to pass the time.